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By Laura Schaefer

An ad for all seasons

For over 300 years, personals have brought people together

Laura Schaefer is a writer for Match.com and the author of Man with Farm Seeks Woman with Tractor: The Best and Worst Personal Ads of All Time (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005)

“A Gentleman, about 27 years of age, kind and amiable in disposition, is desirous of meeting with a PARTNER for LIFE.”

There would be nothing particularly interesting about the classified advertisement above—after all, who hasn’t thought about taking a chance on a personal ad?—were it not for the year of its publication. This cheerful chap elected to advertise for a mate in 1851. And he was far from the first to do so. Many brave souls—everyone from royalty to lonely soldiers—looked for love and marriage in the classifieds centuries before Metropolis helped to match Japanese women with foreign men. Long before online dating sites such as Match.com and eHarmony were taking the world by storm, a daring woman named Sophie was hoping to find a man with a “well-shaped head” in the middle of the 19th century.

Examples of these entertaining personal missives survive from as early as the 1700s and can be found in preserved papers from around the world. Some of the advertisements are earnest and sweet while some are worthy of disbelieving guffaws. All go to show that a well-placed classified ad is a powerful force to bring people together, whether the year happens to be 1737 or 2005. What better way to find the person of your dreams than to describe what you’re looking for and distribute your search as far and wide as possible? Yesterday, they had The Times of London “Agony” column; today, we have FriendFinder.

In the early days of the personal, men were more likely to advertise than women, and the language of most ads included references to marriage, respectability and secrecy. It was fine to meet a mate with an ad…as long as no one found out that Cupid happened to be the daily gazette. In the beginning, personal ads often included specific financial information and formal language. However, many advertisers did not hesitate to be blunt and clever. Witness the following crop of eye-catching notices:

“Sir John Dinely, of Windsor Castle, recommends himself and his ample fortune to any angelic beauty of a good breed, fit to become and willing to be the mother of a noble heir. Ladies at a certain period of life need not apply.” (1802)

“Wanted, by an industrious young man of 30 years of age, of temperate habits, who neither uses tobacco, drinks whisky, nor swears, a partner for life, with five or ten thousand dollars. Of course, a lady preferred.” (1857)

“A lady, young, pretty, bright and poor, desires to make the acquaintance of a man with the opposite qualities with a view to a happy marriage.” (1894)

“Wanted by a middle-aged lady who is good-looking, fine appearing and jolly company, a man who is able and willing to provide a good home and is willing to keep wood and water handy and knows how to lace up a lady’s boot and to do housework, and must be pleasant and agreeable at all times.” (1901)

“Wanted. Middle-aged woman to take care of 71-year-old boy.” (1951)
“Bachelor with 40 acres of excellent land would like to make acquaintance of lady with tractor; matrimony in mind. Please send picture of tractor.” (1957)

The traits that the modern dater seeks, you see, do not differ all that much from the things wanted by these historical advertisers. Our ancestors were generally after youth, looks, and “means.” Just like you. Of course, not many personal advertisements mention tractors these days.

The relatively small number of marriage advertisements appearing haphazardly in the 18th and early 19th century gave way to entire publications dedicated to people advertising for love in the late 1800s. These matrimonial papers, with names such as The Matrimonial News, The Wedding Bell and The Marriage Gazette, flourished around the turn of the century and consisted almost solely of personal ads. Pamphlets could be sent for through the mail for as little as a nickel. Romantic classified ads entered their first heyday.

The phenomenon of the matrimonial advertisement quieted during the middle of the 20th century until modern personals emerged in the ’60s and ’70s. No longer concerned primarily with marriage, these ads became free-for-alls. Now, of course, there is a website for each romantic niche and interest. Personal ads are as numerous as Honda Civics, and just as useful. Thanks to the help of the advertising pioneers of long ago, it is now perfectly easy to find true love or a new friend with a well-written ad.

So next time you consider what to include in your online dating profile, take a moment to think about all those men and women who came before you. It turned out that the “amiable gentleman” from our 1851 advertisement got a nice response to his notice and might have even found a PARTNER for LIFE. Perhaps you will too.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.